Changi for me — of course it's easy to be wise after the event, and to discuss it cleverly after the event — was about as near as you can get to being dead and still be alive.
On his experience as a POW in Changi Prison on Singapore, which became the subject of his novel King Rat; in his interview with Don Swaim (1986)
I write shortstories. They may appear big in size, but when you consider it, they're four or five novels in one. … In return for picking up one of my books, I'm trying to give them value for their money. … the goal of writing any book is to create the illusion that what you are reading is reality and you're part of it.
Interview with Don Swaim (1986)
All stories have a beginning, a middle and an ending, and if they're any good, the ending is a beginning.
Interview with Don Swaim (1986)
Now the sun touched the horizon and the man reined in his horse tiredly, glad that the time for prayer had come.
Changi became my university instead of my prison. … Among the inmates there were experts in all walks of life — the high and the low roads. I studied and absorbed everything I could from physics to counterfeiting, but most of all I learned the art of surviving.
I can transport matter — anything — at the speed of light, perfectly. Of course this is only a crude beginning, but I've stumbled on the most important discovery since man sawed off the end of a tree trunk and found the wheel. The disintegrator-integrator will change life as we know it. Think what it means. Anything, even humans, will go through one of these devices. No need for cars or railways or airplanes, even spaceships. We'll set up matter-receiving stations throughout the world, and later the universe. There'll never be famine. Surpluses can be sent instantaneously at almost no cost, anywhere. Humanity need never want or fear again. I'm a very fortunate man, Hélène.
I get so scared sometimes. The suddenness of our age! Electronics, rockets, earth satellites, supersonic flight, and now this. It's not so much who invents them. It's the fact they exist. … Everything's going so fast, I'm just not ready to take it all in. It's, it's all so quick
These men too were criminals. Their crime was vast. They had lost a war. And they had lived.
For Those Who Were There
And Are Not.
For Those Who Were There And Are
For Him. But Most,
Changi was set like a pearl on the eastern tip of Singapore Island, iridescent under the bowl of tropical skies. It stood on a slight rise and around it was a belt of green, and farther off the green gave way to the blue-green seas and the seas to infinity of horizon. Closer, Changi lost its beauty and became what it was — an obscene forbidding prison. Cellblocks surrounded by sun-baked courtyards surrounded by towering walls.
Inside the walls, inside the cellblocks, story on story, were cells for two thousand prisoners at capacity. Now, in the cells and in the passageways and in every nook and cranny lived some eight thousand men. ... These men too were criminals. Their crime was vast. They had lost a war. And they had lived.
I'm going to get that bloody bastard if I die in the attempt.
Part 1, Ch. 1. Lt. Grey, First line of the story.
Grey was not alone in his hatred. The whole of Changi hated King. They hated him for his muscular body, the clear glow in his blue eyes. In the twilight world of the half alive there were no fat or well-built or round or smooth or fair-built or thick-built men. There were only faces dominated by eyes and set on bodies that were skin over sinews and bones. No difference between them but age and face and height. And in all this world, only the King ate like a man, smoked like a man, slept like a man, dreamed like a man and looked like a man.
Part 1, Ch. 1.
When you have an enemy it is wise to know his ways. The King knew as much about Grey as any man could know about another.
Blackthorne was suddenly awake. For a moment he thought he was dreaming because he was ashore and the room unbelievable. It was small and very clean and covered with soft mats. He was lying on a thick quilt and another was thrown over him. The ceiling was polished cedar and the walls were lathes of cedar, in squares, covered with an opaque paper that muted the light pleasantly. Beside him was a scarlet tray bearing small bowls. One contained cold cooked vegetables and he wolfed them, hardly noticing the piquant taste. Another contained a fish soup and he drained that. Another was filled with a thick porridge of wheat or barley and he finished it quickly, eating with his fingers. The water in an odd-shaped gourd was warm and tasted curious — slightly bitter but savory.
Then he noticed the crucifix in its niche.
This house is Spanish or Portuguese, he thought aghast. Is this the Japans? or Cathay?
First lines, Ch. 1
All his life he had heard legends told among pilots and sailormen about the incredible riches of Portugal's secret empire in the East, how they had by now converted the heathens to Catholicism and so held them in bondage, where gold was as cheap as pig iron, and emeralds, rubies, diamonds, and sapphires as plentiful as pebbles on a beach.
If the Catholic part's true, he told himself, perhaps the rest is too.
To think bad thoughts is really the easiest thing in the world. If you leave your mind to itself it will spiral down into ever-increasing unhappiness. To think good thoughts, however, requires effort. This is one of the things that discipline — training — is about.
What are clouds, but an excuse for the sky? What is life, but an escape from death?
Yabu-san's death poem after being ordered to commit seppuku.
First she studied her husband's flower arrangement. He had chosen the blossom of a single white wild rose and put a single pearl of water on the green leaf, and set it on red stones. Autumn is coming, he was suggesting with the flower, talking through the flower, do not weep for the time of fall, the time of dying when the earth begins to sleep; enjoy the time of beginning again and experience the glorious cool of the autumn air on this summer evening...soon the tear will vanish and the rose, only the stones will remain — soon you and I will vanish and only the stones will remain.
Only by living at the edge of death can you understand the indescribable joy of life.
"Changi changed everyone, changed values permanently. For instance, it gave you a dullness about death — we saw too much of it to have the same sort of meaning to outsiders, to normal people. We are a generation of dinosaurs, we the few who survived. I suppose anyone who goes to war, any war, sees life with different eyes if they end up in one piece."
What did you see?"
"A lot of bull that's worshipped as the be-all and end-all of existence. So much of 'normal, civilized' life is bull that you can't imagine. … What frightens you, doesn't frighten me, what frightens me, you'd laugh at."
"Teacher" (played by Jame's Clavell's daughter Michaela Clavell, credited as Michaela Ross).
Your old teacher never explained anything to you? I don't think that was very good. Not to explain. You can always ask me anything. That's what a real teacher should do.
It is a very pretty flag. … I wish I could have a piece of it. I know! If it's so important, I think we should all have a piece of it. Don't you? … Now we should decide — who should be allowed to cut the first piece off!
Your daddy had to go back to school a little. He had some strangethoughts — and he wanted other grown-ups to believe them. It's not right for others to believe wrong thoughts, is it?
"Teacher" to Johnny
Perhaps my mommy should go back to school. Perhaps she should.
Godbless mommy and daddy, and please can we have some candy.
"Teacher" leading the class in prayer.
Maybe we didn't pray hard enough. Perhaps we should kneel down like is done in church. Perhaps were using the wrong name. Instead of God, let's say "Our Leader." Let's pray to our leader for candy! Let's pray extra specially hard, and don't open your eyes until I say.
I'm going to pray to our leader every time!
I put the candy on the desk. So you know, it doesn't matter who you shut your eyes and pray to — to God, or anyone, even our leader — no one will ever give you anything. Only another human being … only I, or someone like me, can give you things. Praying to God or anyone for something is a waste of time.
Because Johnny was especially clever I think we should make him monitor for the whole week. Don't you?
I'm going to work hard not to have any wrong thoughts!
I asked all kinds of people of every age, "You know the 'I pledge allegiance…'" but before I could finish, at once they would all parrot it, the words almost always equally blurred. In every case discovered that not one teacher, ever — or anyone — had ever explained the words to any one of them. Everyone just had to learn it to say it. The Children's Story came into being that day. It was then that I realized how completely vulnerable my child's mind was — any mind for that matter — under controlled circumstances. Normally I write and rewrite and re-rewrite, but this story came quickly — almost by itself. Barely three words were changed. It pleases me greatly because it keeps asking me questions … Questions like what's the use of "I pledge allegiance" without understanding? Like why is it so easy to divert thoughts and implant others? Like what is freedom and why is it so hard to explain? The Children's Story keeps asking me all sorts of questions I cannot answer. Perhaps you can — then your children will…
Shogun is irresistible… I can't remember when a novel has seized my mind like this one… It's almost impossible not to continue to read Shogun once having opened it. Yet it is not only something that you read — you live it … possessed by the Englishman Blackthorne, the Japanese lord Toranaga and medieval Japan … People, customs, settings, needs and desires all become so enveloping you forget who and where you are.
Webster Schott in The New York Times Book Review, quoted in The New York Times obituary (8 September 1994)